Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Movies that may -- or may not -- be about or for or from Children

Moonrise Kingdom is a child's view of a memory of the 1960s. Not a 21st century child, mind you. A child of the mid-20th century. It is a totally false memory, of course, so I prefer to think Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola wrote Moonrise Kingdom as a fantasy, without the unicorns.

Moonrise Kingdom is a story of young love, broken hearts and lost dreams, which Mr. Anderson directed and produced.  In some ways, it’s very simple.  The girl — 12, knee socks and a short dress, eyeliner, she speaks little and has a pair of left-handed scissors.  The boy —  12,over-sized glasses, coonskin cap, corncob pipe:  Welcome to 1965.  Although adults may not believe it, these two fell in love, and that’s the most important thing in this movie.

 Moonrise Kingdom is sweetly nostalgic for a time that never was.  This story could not be told in the present tense, not in today’s uptight and frightened society.  So Mr. Anderson has brought himself and his characters back in time, and we enjoy them for an hour and a half.  Much more and we might not allow ourselves to suspend disbelief despite the engaging music, the cinematography with soft, natural tones by Robert D. Yeoman, and the interesting performances.  Besides, everyone smokes.

The set-up includes a house that looks like a lake house where a couple families might live in summers.  Apparently not – the Bishop family lives here all year round.  Their house is on one end of a small island off the New England coast, where people write and receive letters, listen to music and read to pass their summer days.  A scout camp is at the opposite end.  Across the cove there’s a bigger bit of civilization with a bigger scout camp, and a prosperous town, including a church where Benjamin Britten’s Noyes Fludde is playing, or has played, and may play again.  Mr. Britten’s music accompanies much of this film, starting with his “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” played on a small portable record player.   Then there’s some Hank Williams, then more Britten.  Music and orchestrations during the film are by Conrad Pope and they’re marvelous. In addition, original music by Alexandre Desplat is clever and fitting.
Suzy and Sam meet in the meadow.

From one end of the island comes orphan and foster child Sam (Jared Gilman), 12 years old and looking for love.  From the Bishop house there’s Suzy (Kara Hayward), misunderstood, fleeing (for “ten days or less” as she tells her little brother when she borrows his portable record player) an unhappy household where the mom calls the kids to meals with a bullhorn, when she’s not fooling around with the Island’s police officer.  These two star-crossed lovers will meet in the meadow, and the adventure begins, building up to an emotional crescendo in time for an infamous hurricane that floods coves and dams and knocks steeples off churches.

Bruce Willis is just marvelous as the sad-sack, good-hearted Captain Sharp who loves Mrs. Bishop, warmly played by Frances McDormand.  She and her husband Walt, oddly (and that’s not a bad word in this movie) played by Bill Murray, are both lawyers, and their idea of pillow talk is following up on each other’s court motions. On the other end of the island, Scout Master Ward is an 8th grade math teacher during school season, but considers the scouts his more important job.  Edward Norton plays the scout master with a sad fragility, gaining strength when needed — in some ways, that hurricane did people a lot of good.
Murray, Swinton, Willis, Norton, McDormand

Tilda Swinton makes a particularly odd appearance as a blue-clad “Social Services” unit.  There she was in her little cap, skirt suit, in an electric blue.  What was that about?  I didn’t particularly care, but the blue pulled focus. She served a purpose in the plot, but unlike everyone else in the film, she was merely odd, not interesting.

Wandering through the smoke, rain, and wind is Bob Balaban, master of ceremonies, narrator, historian.  I have no idea what’s fiction and what’s non-, since I tend to believe everything Balaban says.

Overall:  Moonrise Kingdom has great music, it’s a leisurely, odd, quirky little film.  It has a calming effect, and even the closing credits are sweet and cleverly done.  It’s a nice Saturday afternoon at the movies.  If your movie budget this summer is limited, Moonrise Kingdom will be just as undemandingly enjoyable and effective on the small screen.

Speaking of a child’s view, I saw the new Pixar film Brave last weekend.  It’s an absolute joy, funny, sweet, and, well, it’s Pixar…. from the music to the lyrical voices, to the gorgeous artwork, Brave just glows.  The loch looked like moving water, the horse’s fear made my heart pound, and the bears had full-blown personalities.  The people had as well!  Emma Thompson was Queen Elinor (well, her voice, but the facial expressions almost looked like her as well), Billy Connolly was a sweetheart of a dad as King Fergus, Julie Walters was very funny as the wood carving witch, and the delightful Kelly MacDonald wins everyone’s heart as the coming-of-age-child, Merida.  Animated or not, the acting was swell, the story was tight, and everyone should see this.  Well, maybe not kids under 5….it has some scary moments.

There was also an opening short called, appropriately, La Luna, which was short and sweet and clever and heart-warming.  Loved it – and look forward to more work from writer/director Enrico Casarosa.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to read a children’s book from the Sixties.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

As We Like It

The Public Theatre’s 50th season of Shakespeare in the Park has started off with a twang and a thrum and a heart-warming humdinger of a production of As You Like It.  Director Daniel Sullivan has taken the Forest of Arden and planted it in the American frontier leaning south.  A Lincoln Logs fort hides the Duke’s court up center, with a watchtower way up high.  A fellow in a vaguely Confederate uniform watches the audience amble in.  Another soldier joins him on a lower level.  Then four fabulous musicians, led by Tony Trischka, stroll on and joyously entertain us with bluegrass music written by Steve Martin (yes, walk-like-an-Egyptian Steve Martin).  Banjo, guitar, bass, and a fiddle, they picked and stroked and sang up a storm on a perfect evening in Central Park. 
Photo Credits Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

A sign hangs from a tree advertising a challenge to Charles the Wrestler, and the scene is set.  One by one we meet Orlando and Adam, Celia and Rosalind, Shakespeare’s usurper Duke Frederick, his entourage -- I can just type out the list of characters in As You Like It and say they were all well cast, loving their work and sharing it with us.  Sometimes when I see a Shakespeare play I have read multiple times and seen performed as many, something amazing happens, and I hear lines suddenly clarified, suddenly new, the suddenness magical.  This was one of those evenings in the theatre.

AYLI includes so many elements:  two instances of internecine quarreling — severe to the point of banishment and attempted murder — cross dressing, disguises, romance (primary, secondary, tertiary, quaternary), and a great deal of bawdy.  All these elements need to be blended together by a skilled director and, happily, Daniel Sullivan is a highly skilled, crafty, witty, and swell director. He tells the story of the play coherently, cohesively, and finds all the fun while retaining the verse and its rhythms.  Set designer John Lee Beatty integrated his clever set with Central Park’s trees so that it was tough to tell the landscape from the stage, while Jane Greenwood’s comfy period costumes made everyone easily shrug on their clothing to meet the day.

The opening scene of Shakespeare's AYLI is a weak one, providing exposition of Orlando’s family history and present estate.  Granted, in Shakespeare’s day people went to hear a play, not see it.  Nevertheless, it’s definitely telling instead of showing.  Showing comes soon enough, though, upon the entrance of Orlando’s elder brother Oliver.  The two men wrestle to the ground, Oliver emerging red-faced and furious, setting up a brother banished, and the possibility that Orlando’s decision to challenge Charles the Wrestler is not necessarily suicidal.  Knowing how to use one’s weight can be as important as having it.  This Orlando knows.

Most productions of AYLI begin to fail right there in the opening, with Orlando sounding petulant, hardly the stuff of a leading man.  Luckily the same words, under the more than capable guidance of Mr. Sullivan, sound different coming from David Furr’s Orlando, which is, bar none, the best Orlando I’ve ever seen.  Macintyre Dixon as Adam, the old manservant Oliver banishes along with his brother, is a good match for Furr, his new master.  And Omar Metwally does fine work as the elder brother with all the advantages, yet still feverish with jealousy of his younger brother’s natural graces.

Meanwhile, in the fort, Duke Frederick, the usurper of his brother Duke Senior, is an unstable fellow.  One moment he’s “hale fellow well met,” and the next he lashes out fiercely for no cause.  His exiled brother Duke Senior is of a much more even disposition, which the foolish might mistake for weakness.  The brother dukes are played by Andre Braugher, whose booming voice suits Shakespeare’s royalty and readily differentiates the dukes. He is kind and warm as Senior and changeable as Frederick.

Celia, daughter of the unstable Duke Frederick, is played with hearty relish by Renee Elise Goldsberry.  She is petite and pretty and powerful.  The connection between her and her cousin Rosalind, daughter of the exiled Duke Senior, is nearly palpable.  I’ve seen some good Celia’s, but never as clear a relationship as between these two women.  These cousins are like sisters, joking, arguing, teasing, loving, and defending one another against all comers – even if he’s a Duke.

The fights were all well staged by Rick Sordelet, performed well by Furr and Metwally and Brendan Averett, who played Charles the Wrestler. The important part of the wrestling scene, of course, is the magical moment when two sets of eyes meet, and Rosalind and Orlando are smitten, quite prepared to fall at one another’s feet.  Of course, neither can say so, and off we go.

Public Theatre Artistic Director Oskar Eustis’ Notes to the production state it clearly:  “You …do As You Like It when you’ve got a Rosalind.”  Has he got a Rosalind!  Lily Rabe is wondrous.  Articulate, witty, sharp, silly, she runs the gamut as Rosalind/Ganymede.  She was pitch perfect, gifting us with her beautiful use of verse, voice, heart and body.  Mischievously butch as she counterfeits a counterfeit of herself, witty beyond laughter in court or country.  Her Ganymede’s “You are not for all markets” admonition to Phoebe was fresh and new.

I can say with certainty that these were the best Rosalind-and-Celia and the best Rosalind-and-Orlando scenes I have ever seen.  Orlando’s not an easy role, so often appearing a doofus, but David Furr made him young and abused, young and brash, until he grew flowering into a courtier worthy of the daughter of a duke.  This was the first time I've really heard the scene between Orlando and Jaques, perhaps because it was the first time I believed Orlando was capable of the conversation. 

Stephen Spinella’s thrilling, ever looming, listening Jaques was drily funny and thoughtful and sad. The seven ages of man speech trotted along as Spinella simply told the story, without rushing, as if it had never been told before.  His opening lines just stop the show with laughter at his extraordinary tone.  He closes the first act with stillness.  I stood to stretch as others went off to the concession stand, and just watched him live those unscripted moments.  A wonderful performance.
Stephen Spinella as Jaques.  (Photo by Jennifer Broski)
Oliver Platt, not surprisingly, knows how to play the bawdy as Touchstone.  He is hilarious slapstick, rhythmic, scandalous. The pairing of Platt with Donna Lynne Champlin as Audrey, an earthy dancing fool, did not appear to be a courtly fellow taking advantage of a simple country wench.  Perhaps the opposite.  Lusty is as lusty does with those two.  I felt for poor Audrey’s wooer William (a single scene by a singular player, Brendan Titley, was just marvelous), but this Audrey and Touchstone belong together.

The foolish Silvius, in love with the shepherdess Phoebe (played by Susanna Flood, who was not quite in same part of the forest), was well done by Will Rogers with traditional oafishness that turns to wit when he learns a thing or two. 

Robert Joy’s Le Beau is charmingly foolish, torn yet loyal.  Among the banished duke’s followers is Amiens, played by the golden-voiced Jesse Lenat who leads the exiles in song.  All the crackerjack musicians (including Tashina Clarridge, Jordan Tice, Skip Ward, Anna Phyllis Smith, and Tony Trischka) in this production were splendid, as was the nifty choreography by Mimi Lieber.

In short, the Public Theatre's As You Like It is the best all around production of the play I've ever seen. Daniel Sullivan directed beautifully, Lily Rabe’s Rosalind and David Furr’s Orlando were stunningly played, Stephen Spinella is a better Jaques than we could dream, and Oliver Platt is the ultimate Touchstone. Go if you possibly can. Go wait on line beneath the shady trees of Central Park, or at the downtown theatre, or go join the Virtual Line at, but go see this well-nigh perfect production of As You Like It at the Delacorte Theatre before it closes much too soon at the end of June.

~ Molly Matera, signing off with a question:  Why isn’t this running two more weeks at the Delacorte?!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

9 to 5 + Trickster = Disappointing

This month the Women’s Project is putting on an experimental play — experimental in that it has multiple playwrights and directors creating it, rather like the large writing staffs of television sitcoms.  Not surprisingly, that’s what We Play for the Gods seemed like, except that it lacked a laugh track.  The laughs, chuckles, even giggles, were provided by a living audience.  However, in terms of the evening’s entertainment meeting the barest structural elements needed for a “play,” well: a beginning (none), middle (muddle), and end (still waiting). 
(C) 2012 Women's Project

The actors in We Play for the Gods are valiant creatures, so talented they make this play appear to work. Alas, it does not.  Is it a case of too many cooks?

As the audience enters the Cherry Lane Theatre, a woman sounding vaguely like a BBC Newscaster makes real and unreal announcements, asking (so discreetly) for donations for the Women’s Project in a soothing voice.  It’s rather difficult, therefore, to know when the play starts, since the same voice apparently proceeds as a radio broadcaster, awakening Simi, aptly described as a dysfunctional scientist.  Simi is well played with quiet pain and passion by Amber Gray.  A clip-clopping is heard — happily not a latecomer coming down the aisle but rather Annie Golden as Marla, office manager/administrative assistant/what have you for decades at the May Institute, “a world-renowned research institute dedicated entirely to the study of human behavior….” and so on.  Marla is experienced and practical, broken, used up.  Next in is Susan, a temp whom you just know will be arty. She’s terrified, oddly dressed for corporate America, and as we come to learn, a poet.  With an MFA, no less.  Irene Sofia Lucio plays this lost young woman beautifully, as Susan tries desperately to fit in, using her powerful “confident” voice that fools no one.  Lisa is the boss, perhaps once a scientist but now a brusque, tightly wound fund-raising executive with a repressive and probably vulgarian (male of course) boss above her.  She is bound to break into sharp shards before the evening is out, based upon this pitch perfect performance by Erika Rolfsrud.  And finally, the uninvited guest, a trickster “god” in blue, messing with everybody as if their real lives weren’t bad enough.  This mad woman, called the Provocatrix in the program, is played irreverently by Alexandra Henrikson.

Left to Right:  Erika Rolfsrud, Amber Gray, Alexandra Henrikson, Irene Sofia Lucio, and Annie Golden

These five dauntless women work very well together onstage and make us almost care. 

Was the point to show us that disparate desperate people are forced in our society (as if it’s different in any other) to work together in a place where nobody wins, nobody thrives, no one survives?  Or is it about “Trix,” the blue bitch who comes by to throw wrenches, high winds, and seagulls into the works to destroy what little these people have.

Only Susan, the frustrated poet — who seems to believe the Trickster may be her mischievous, miserably mean muse — seems to accomplish anything by the end of the play.  Simi appears to have gone quite over the edge, and Lisa and Marla will live on through Scotch. 

Yes, the Trickster god is not beneficent.  Nevertheless, just what was the point?  What we have here are four interesting characters in search of a story.  If those staff writers — seven playwrights, four directors, three producers — can find one, they may be able to write a play instead of a sitcom episode about working women, a derogatory phrase if ever this working woman has heard one. 

The Women's Project's latest project was disappointing.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to search the Internet for episodes of Murphy Brown.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Fairy Tales: Another Retelling

The last fairy tale turned movie I saw did not go so well, but yet, with Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron in the mix, Snow White and the Huntsman (hereafter “SWATH”) was an obvious choice for the weekend movie.  First-time film director Rupert Sanders has put himself on my “worth seeing” list with this debut.
(C) 2012 Universal Pictures

SWATH was fun, gorgeous, with good direction and CGI and all things visual (as well it should be, at its cost), as well as some good writing by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, and Hossein Amini.  Not great writing, but a good story that moved along (except for those long shots of our heroes trekking through the hills), fleshed out some familiar characters in unfamiliar ways, snuck in a scintillating point of view, and finally brought it all to a quite satisfactory close.

This is not your grandmother’s Snow White, although it may be your great grandmother’s since it reverts, as modern interpretations tend to do (see Donna Jo Napoli’s novel Zel or Angela Carter’s collection The Bloody Chamber), back toward its grim forbears.  Fairy tales were not sweet, just as folklore is not.  Fables can be harsh.  Pre-Disneyfication, these stories were meant to instruct and terrify children in order to 1) keep them in line and 2) protect them.  The forest was indeed deep, dark, and dangerous, animals were fierce and lethal, and there are times we should not speak to strangers.

Charlize Theron as Queen Ravenna, Sam Spruell as her brother Finn (C) 2012 Universal Pictures.

Queen Ravenna is certainly not your grandmother’s Evil Queen.  Evil she is, but Ravenna is a feminist rewrite of the wicked stepmother, here appearing as an abused child revenging herself on the world, becoming predator instead of prey.  Queen Ravenna goes to any means to protect herself and her creepy brother Finn, and wreaks havoc while she’s at it.  Her history is effectively touched upon in the movie.  Perhaps that was the story Mr. Sanders really wanted to tell, since he cast someone who could really play it.  In the hands of Charlize Theron, Ravenna’s childhood fears follow her throughout life, as do her lessons learned:  If men find you beautiful, they may hurt you but they’ll keep you.  If they do not, you’re on your own.

The destructive reign of Queen Ravenna has corroded the land, the lakes, the hills, the mines.  The dark forest is truly frightening, as the woodlands before deforestation throughout Europe would have been.  From great hulking trunks spread branches and leaves that block the light; unruly tree roots and vines trip clumsy interlopers.  The unknown is on all sides, above and below, the better to fright you with….   

The forest created by director Sanders, production designer Dominic Watkins, art director David Warren, and cinematographer Greig Fraser, was terrifying, generating shivers and shrieks.  Even dismal forests don’t last forever, however, and the same team created a joyously colorful reward coming out of the woods.  The magic that follows Snow White is as bright as Ravenna’s is dark.  Some of the woodland creatures may have been a tad Disney-like, but the entry into this unexpected land was a breath-taking delight.  Except, perhaps, for the little fairies with their six-pack abs — I kept expecting tiny little sharp teeth to appear.  Be that as it may….. where there is light, there is shadow, and innocence has no defense against trickery.
Chris Hemsworth as the Huntsman, Kristen Stewart as Snow White

Costume design by Colleen Atwood was very fine — oh, those crowns, those capes.  Ravenna’s wardrobe is marvelous, the Huntsman could have been born and grown up in his clothing, the outfits worn by members of the pre-Ravenna court are gorgeous, opulent, healthy and happy.  Grown-up Snow White’s dress serves many purposes and looks terrific.  Ms. Atwood may be up for another Oscar.

Ravenna’s dark magic is visually stunning, her vampiric method of draining life and youth from young maidens repulsive.  Ravenna’s history is a horrific one.  Snow White’s travails, in comparison, are negligible.  What matters is what Ravenna inflicts on the entire kingdom, and every living thing above or below ground.  All bow to her fury and misery.  It is not only magic that created Ravenna.  She didn’t learn to be that woman overnight, nor on her own.

Charlize Theron makes the wicked queen hauntingly human despite her magicks, and often downright sympathetic.  When Ravenna shouts, it’s raw, angry, and powerful.  When Snow White shouts, her weak voice does not resonate, nor does it sound “naturalistic.” 

Kristen Stewart as Snow White was her usual tepid self.  She did as required by the intelligent script.  She has a nice face and a fan base, but while she did not detract from the film, neither did she add to it.  She's not totally incompetent, but she's....boring.  Sam Spruell playing Finn, Ravenna's sleazy, shudder-inducing brother, is not boring. Queen Ravenna, the Huntsman, William, the dwarfs, all had personal histories informing their characters.  So, presumably, had Snow White, but who could tell?

Sam Claflin as William
William, son of a Duke and presumed handsome prince prime for a rescue is the very attractive Sam Claflin, who gets the opportunity to play two sides of the fellow, and does a perfectly good job.  But hard as he may vie, the Huntsman, who does not even try, would get my vote.

SWATH brings the count to four characters in five films I’ve seen Chris Hemsworth play in the last three years.  When you’re hot….well, he is.  Hemsworth’s Huntsman is a brawling braggart, a drunkard, and a widower.  Like other characters in this story, the Huntsman has a history.  He makes us laugh, he makes us care.

The dwarfs are angry old men — mostly.  Fine actors play anti-Disney versions — no Sleepy, no Dopey, but all rather grumpy.  Look for CGI’ed versions of:  Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, Johnny Harris, and Brian Gleeson.  Yes, that’s eight.  There’s some singing, some dancing, some grousing and growling. 

The film has the requisite white horse to help the imprisoned princess escape the wicked queen, an unusual number of dwarfs, mysterious masked women, two guys trying not to vie for the princess’ affections, and a Transformation:  from a child running away to a young woman striding forward on a journey quest, picking up friends along the way.  For those looking for romance, the Snow White courted by princes in Disneyland is not here.  This Snow White, as created by Sanders and his three screenwriters, is a child forced into adulthood and responsibility for her kingdom and her people, not someone looking for a date.  When Snow White finally wakes up, she is focused, dresses like Joan of Arc, then does Joan one better.

At this point in the film, some people might ask questions like “But how…” or “but when….”  Don’t think about it.  Fantasies often cannot stand up to serious scrutiny.  Don't worry, be happy.

All in all, I found the film engaging from beginning to end, amusing at times, horrifying at others.  Disney’s sweet, but grim is more fun….

~ Molly Matera, signing off.  Time to dim the lights and re-read some tales from the Brothers Grimm….